The enormity of the crimes committed during the Third Reich has confronted historians with the problem of explaining how a nation as progressive and cultured as Germany could have brought forth and tolerated the regime that committed them. Earlier answers to this problem, which varied from arguments based upon explorations of the German mind to attributions of baleful influence to the Prussian military, have been superseded since the 1960s by sociological and structural ones.

The most popular of these emphasize a lack of coordination between Germany’s economic growth in the modern period and its social and political development. Because of the failure of the revolution of 1848 and Bismarck’s subsequent unification of Germany by a combination of diplomatic guile and military brutality, the middle class, it is argued, lost confidence in its own political and social goals, submitted to the all-powerful state, compromised with the Junker agriculturists (the so-called marriage of iron and rye), and tamely accepted the values of the aristocratic establishment (the feudalization of the bourgeoisie). These surrenders destroyed the possibility of progress toward liberalism and democracy by confirming the old preindustrial elite in power, giving it the opportunity, indeed, to survive the end of the monarchy, to subvert the foundations of the Weimar Republic, and to project Hitler into power. Thus the failed bourgeois revolution is the key to Germany’s Sonderweg, its pronounced deviation from the road followed by its western neighbors and its catastrophic surrender to Nazism.

Five years ago, in a book published first in Germany, two young British historians, David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, submitted this thesis to a meticulous examination and declared it unsatisfactory; the vigor of their attack and the forth-rightness with which they rejected views held by leading German historians caused a great roiling of the academic waters that has not yet entirely subsided. The Sonderweg controversy became for the 1980s what the Fischer controversy over German aims in the First World War was for the 1960s; nor were the two unconnected. Eley and Blackbourn have now prepared an English version of their original book, expanded both in text and footnotes, and provided with a substantial introduction that places their work in the context of the continuing discussion.

At the risk of doing an injustice to the sophistication of their argument and the wealth of material they adduce to support it, one can say that the two authors are intent above all on demonstrating that a comparison of the experience of the German middle class with that of the British or French bourgeoisie does not reveal the differences that have been taken for granted. If there was no successful bourgeois revolution in Germany, in the sense of a classical rising that successfully unseated a ruling aristocracy, there was none in the other countries either. The bourgeoisie, Blackbourn writes, “characteristically became the dominant class in European countries, although seldom the ruling class and never the sole ruling class, through means other than the heroic, purposive conquest of power. Its real strength and power were anchored in the capitalist mode of production and articulated through dominance in civil society.”

This happened no less in Germany than elsewhere. Indeed, Eley argues, Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871 may be described as a “bourgeois revolution from above,” in the sense that “through a radical process of political innovation it delivered the legal and political conditions for a society in which the capitalist mode of production could be dominant.” What followed was not a feudalization of the bourgeoisie, but the same kind of symbiosis between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie that occurred in England and elsewhere at the same time. Simultaneously the tone of society—as seen in its legal arrangements, the proliferation of voluntary societies, its taste, fashion, dress, and amusements—became predominantly bourgeois. The cultural pessimism that is so often cited as proof of a neurotic middle-class revulsion against the modernity that they had championed becomes, in the Blackbourn-Eley account, merely the reverse side of the bourgeoisie’s optimistic faith in progress and, again, not characteristically German, since it can be found in various forms in “fin de siècle France, Karl Kraus’s Vienna, the generation of 1898 in Spain.”

Finally, the failure of the middle class to participate actively in politics and to fight for liberal and democratic ideals cannot, in the authors’ view, be described as a weak surrender to preindustrial forces. To reach such a conclusion is to apply “the external standard of an abstract liberal democracy rather than…the contemporary standard of Imperial German society and its requirements.” The fact is that “both the Bismarckian state and an authoritarian mode of politics were perfectly effective in securing specifically ‘bourgeois’ interests, if these are strictly defined in relation to the fundamental processes of class formation and capitalist industrialization.” Why, therefore, should the German bourgeoisie have been expected to act differently?


All in all, then, German history is not so peculiar after all. As Blackbourn writes in his conclusion, “Exaggerated emphasis on the absoluteness of German peculiarity…indirectly bolsters the morbid mystique of German history” and is the surest way to trivialize it. “In many respects…the German experience constituted a heightened version of what occurred elsewhere,” which may also be true, he intimates (while acknowledging that others may not agree), of the combination of forces that produced “Germany’s exceptionally radical form of fascism.”

The energy with which this case is propounded is impressive and will doubtless induce some reassessment, and even modification, of previous views of Germany’s modern development. And yet, the argument is not entirely persuasive. When Blackbourn writes,

Specialists in British and French history have fairly effectively disposed of the notion of anything resembling bourgeois social transformation in either country, at least of the kind that still seems to govern the categories in which German if-only history is constructed…

does that mean that we are no longer to take seriously the French revolution of 1830 or the passage of the Great Reform Act and the repeal of the Corn Laws in England, events that are not discussed in these pages? Is it of no significance that Germany had no Guizot and no opponent of the aristocracy as unconditional as Cobden, who said, and throughout the Corn Law fight acted on the principle that, “the sooner the power in this country is transferred from the landed oligarchy, which has misused it, and is placed absolutely—mind, I say absolutely—in the hands of the intelligent middle and industrious classes, the better for the condition and destinies of this country”? Are we simply to overlook the absence in German life of men with the representative stature and public authority of Gambetta, Gladstone, and Lloyd George?

That a symbiosis between aristocracy and middle class took place in other countries besides Germany is not unknown. In his English Constitution Walter Bagehot wrote, “In all countries, new wealth is ready to worship old wealth, if old wealth will let it”; and the forms that this social convergence took are described in both Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Yet it is worth noting that in both England and France this process began after the bourgeoisie had established its importance as both an economic and a political force and not, as was true in Germany, in the wake of repeated demonstrations of political impotence.

Thus it is not entirely convincing to read here about the social dominance of the bourgeoisie, and certainly some of the examples used by Eley and Blackbourn to support this idea are dubious. The fact that “on his triumphal journey through Germany in 1842,” the poet Georg Herwegh “was cheered by the bourgeoisie like a modern film star” is less impressive as an example of an effective bourgeois public opinion when one remembers that Herwegh was promptly expelled from the kingdom of Prussia and, indeed, from Germany as a whole, and was not permitted to return until thirty years later when he was penniless and close to death. To the novelist Theodor Fontane, an excellent observer of the social scene, its salient feature was the ascendancy not of the bourgeoisie (which he felt was hopelessly spineless and conformist) but of the aristocracy. “The reason that we now make such a terribly retarded impression,” he wrote in 1893, “[is] that thousands of these personalities from the stone age are running around.” Fontane had hoped that William II would change all that, but he was soon writing with resignation that the young monarch

believes that he can provide for the new with the completely old; he wants to establish the modern with weapons found in the old clothes attic…. Prussia, and to some extent all Germany, is sick because of its East Elbians…. To rule the country for their sake in the delusion that this nobility is the country, that is our misfortune.

Apart from this, the Eley-Blackbourn account fails as a completely satisfactory analysis of German peculiarity because it neglects the cultural and ideological dimensions of the problem. This is particularly noticeable in its cursory treatment of cultural pessimism. Whatever may be said of the incidence of this malady in France and Spain, in Germany it was certainly more than the shadow side of bourgeois optimism, and its origins lie well before the period covered by the two authors. In a brilliant essay, “National Socialism as Temptation,” in the volume Reflexionen Finsterer Zeit (Reflections of a Dark Age), Fritz Stern recalls a passage in Daybreak in which Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the “profound and comprehensive antipathy of the Germans to the Enlightenment,” an aversion that “fills heart and soul and leaves no room for future-oriented and renovative goals.” Nietzsche was certainly not alone—one thinks of Dilthey and Troeltsch and Thomas Mann—in arguing that the event that was chiefly responsible for the gulf that opened between Germany and its western neighbors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the failure of the political ideals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to make a sensible impression upon the German states, and the subsequent rejection, during the first wave of Romanticism, of the Enlightenment’s faith in the application of reason to social problems, its dedication to freedom in all its forms, its absolute commitment to criticism, and its fearlessness in facing new ideas, on the grounds that such things were false and un-German.


It was the flight from rationality that constituted, in Stern’s view, the real German Sonderweg, a disposition that was characteristic above all of conservative intellectuals (Ernst Jünger once boasted that it was a privilege to take part in the intellectuals’ high treason against the intellect), but was widespread in the country, where the confusion and complexity of modern life encouraged an irrational desire to escape from freedom. Stern cites Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words of 1927 as evidence of the seductiveness of authoritarianism to large sections of society: “Never was a German struggle for freedom more ardent and at the same time more tenacious than this struggle, which is manifest in the thousands of souls of the nation, the struggle for real compulsion and self-immolation in a never sufficiently compelling compulsion.”

One characteristic of anti-Enlightenment irrationality was the ability to believe in ideologies that embraced ideas that were logically inconsistent and mutually contradictory. One might have supposed, for instance, that the neoromantic cultural pessimists who rejected such aspects of modernity as capitalism, modern science, and city culture and called for a return to the organic rather than the pluralistic state with a vital connection between Raum and Volk would have included technology among the objects they detested. Some did, of course, equating it with Americanismus, Taylorism, or rationalized production, and the degradation and despiritualization of mankind. But the Nazis, often the most strident in their antimodernist pronouncements, were never reluctant to allow their actions to contradict their rhetoric, and they were notably inconsistent here. Thomas Mann made the point brilliantly when he wrote that “the really characteristic and dangerous aspect of National Socialism was its mixture of robust modernity and an affirmative stance toward progress combined with dreams of the past: a highly technological romanticism.”

This accommodation of opposites Jeffrey Herf has labeled “reactionary modernism,” and in a highly original book he has described the way in which modern technology was incorporated in the cultural system of modern nationalism, without diminishing that system’s romantic and antirational aspects. The “reconciliation of technology and unreason,” he writes,

began in German technical universities around the turn of the century, was first advocated by the nontechnical intellectuals of Weimar’s conservative revolution, found a home in the Nazi party in the 1920s and among the propagandists of the Hitler regime in the 30s, and became a contributing factor in the triumph of totalitarian ideology up to 1945.

It was facilitated by the economist Werner Sombart’s argument that to liberate capitalism from Jewish control would somehow ennoble it and free technology from its commercial preoccupation, so that it could serve the nation. It was encouraged by Ernst Jünger’s idealization of the war experience and by his concept of “total mobilization” as “a mysterious and compelling claim” upon the individual in the service of a German war that would foster the “victory of the soul over the machine.” It was fostered by much incoherent nonsense like Hans Freyer’s talk about “the idea of the plasticity of material that has been stirring in the European spirit from its beginning…and that forms the spiritual foundation of the new technology.”

It was also promoted by the not unnatural desire of engineers to enhance the prestige of their own calling by distinguishing their heroic and creative function from the accumulative drive of the capitalists and the impractical abstractions of the natural scientists; and it was popularized by Josef Goebbels’s celebration of a “steely romanticism” and his boast that “National Socialism understood how to take the soulless framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time.”

All of this was, of course, mumbo jumbo, often with comic touches, as in the not infrequent articles about Goethe the technologist and about the affinities between the electric motor and the Nordic soul, but it was dangerous for its purveyors. To define technology as steely romanticism is doubtless richly satisfying to the uncritical mind, but technology, after all, is not meant to be romantic but to work. And Nazi technology didn’t work very well. It was adequate for the purpose of constructing ingenious devices for killing concentration camp victims but not for the challenges of war, when they arrived. A reactionary modernism that preferred ideology to strategy, a technology that had sacrificed the rigor and rationality of the natural sciences for soul and Germanness soon came up against the limitations imposed by Nazi rejection of the Enlightenment. The more obvious this became, the more Hitler and Goebbels fell back upon the ideology of the will. As Mr. Herf writes, “If technology was to be filled with Geist and Seele, what difference did it make if the Russians produced twice or three times as many tanks? This was, as Hitler put it, merely a technical problem; the will would triumph.” Unfortunately for Germany, it didn’t.

Like Herf’s Reactionary Modernism, Woodruff Smith’s The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism deals with the historical capacity of the Germans for believing in inherently contradictory sets of ideas, and in his demonstration of how this worked in the field of national policy determination one can again detect the strong influence of anti-Enlightenment processes of thought. The author of this fascinating book, which includes a most interesting analysis of the structure and functions of ideologies, takes the view that Nazi foreign policy was dominated, and in the end defeated, by a fusion of two separate and contradictory ideologies of imperialism, which had developed over the course of the past century. One of these was Weltpolitik, which, in its early forms at least, held that Germany’s destiny lay in “the creation of protected markets and investment areas outside Germany’s borders and the attainment of secure external supplies of raw materials at regulated prices,” by means of a policy rigorously controlled by the national government and the business-leadership structures, acting in close collaboration. The second imperial notion, of older provenance, was Lebensraum, which originated in the years before 1848 when settlement colonies were seen as the solution to problems of immigration caused by demographic and economic pressures.

Both of these kinds of imperialism became what Mr. Smith calls “classic aggregate ideologies, formed from the accretion of a wide variety of ideas around a central core of economic imperialism.” Weltpolitik owed much of its political effectiveness to “its identification with science, modernity, rationality and planning,” but also to the emotional appeal that it made to people who wanted to see Germany rival Britain as an imperial power. Lebensraum, on the other hand, acquired a romantic agrarian, Völkisch, and, eventually, racist character. If the national interest protected by Weltpolitik was largely an industrial one, “Lebensraum’s nationalism…tended much more to be defined in terms of Deutschtum“; in a paradoxical way, its psychic appeals were stronger than its economic ones, and it always had an underlying antimodernist connotation.

Because of the need for legitimacy, each tended to absorb new ideas and invent new reasons why it should be supported (advocates of Weltpolitik in the nineteenth century, like Paul Rohrbach and Alfred von Tirpitz, felt constrained to add a colonial dimension to it or to argue that it would help defeat social democracy), and they thus became overloaded and contradictory. Even so, despite the overlap in content and frequent attempts to combine them, Weltpolitik and Lebensraum remained fundamentally different ideologies from the 1890s until the Nazi era. It was Adolf Hitler who succeeded in fusing them, with disastrous results.

Hitler was interested from the beginning in imperialism as a force that could potentially unite the Germans. His original inclination was toward a policy exclusively of Lebensraum—because of the attractiveness of that ideology to radical conservatism, its emphasis upon Germanness and the perpetuation of peasant values and virtues, and its potential use as a vehicle for promoting his yet undisclosed exterminatory racial intentions. But although he specifically abjured world-political intentions in Mein Kampf, he changed his mind when Great Britain refused to play the role of compliant partner that he had written for it. Thereafter he adopted both policies, reconciling their contradictions by the usual Nazi declarations about will being more important than logic and by incorporating them into his foreign policy by means of a three-stage schedule that envisaged, first, the achievement of Germany’s independence and the reacquisition of military power; second, the achievement of Lebensraum by defeating France and destroying the Soviet Union, without, it was hoped, interference from Great Britain; and, third, the Weltpolitik stage, in which Germany moved toward world domination.

This again showed a preference for ideology instead of strategy. Hitler’s merging of Lebensraum and Weltpolitik was useful for reconciling divergent views of policy, but it showed no recognition of external reality or of the limits upon Germany’s own resources. By 1941, the distinction between the three stages of policy had become hopelessly blurred, and, Mr. Smith writes, “Hitler found himself…simultaneously attempting to complete the work of the Lebensraum stage by defeating Russia and Britain, to build the foundations of his new order in Europe (based essentially on doctrines of Lebensraum, autarky, and racial purity), and to conduct a war that theoretically belonged to a third or Weltpolitik stage: the war against the United States.” Faced with these realities, Hitler resorted as always to the argument most likely to appeal to the true believers, of whom there were multitudes until the end: that where there was will, the laws of rationality did not apply.

The debate over German peculiarity is not going to be settled by any of the books reviewed here, and it will be a long time before academic scholars stop arguing about how exactly Sonder the German Weg was. But Jeffrey Herf is surely justified when, in referring to the vogue, in the last two decades, of structural explanations of political events and to their failure to provide satisfactory answers, he reminds us in his last pages of how Max Weber always argued that neither history nor sociology could afford to neglect the general culture of a society and its prevailing systems of ideas. To which we might add Anthony Powell’s injunction in A Dance to the Music of Time, that “the past has to be accepted for what it thought and what it was.”

This Issue

January 30, 1986